Under the direction of Nashville Rep‘s producing artistic director Rene D. Copeland, Nashville Rep’s “A Christmas Story” has become the definitive sign that the holidays are about to descend upon Middle Tennessee. This season marks the eighth year Nashville Repertory Theatre has presented their version of Phillip Grecian’s stage version of the beloved modern holiday classic based on the original writings of humorist Jean Shepherd, and of course the beloved early 80s film.
Humorist Jean Shepherd first introduced readers to his only slightly fictionalized Indiana boyhood memories in the pages of Playboy magazine in a series or short stories published in the mid-sixties. A few years later, during a Christmas broadcast of his New York0-based radio show, Shepherd shared a story titled “Flick’s Tongue” as a holiday gift to his listeners. Fast forward to 1983 and the release of “A Christmas Story”, and a modern holiday favorite was born.
What makes Nashville Rep’s “A Christmas Story” so much fun is the cast. Last year marked the debut of an all-new cast and this year most of them are back for a second look at Ralphie’s quest for an official Red Ryder BB gun…”with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”.
You can’t have “A Christmas Story” without Ralphie. Frequent NashvilleRep star, Derek Whittaker is back for his second season as Ralphie. Whittaker eases into the coveted role with a nuanced finesse that makes you forget you’re watching a middle-aged man playing a pre-teen boy whose primary goal is to secure the Christmas present of his dreams. As only a seasoned actor can, Whittaker somehow expands upon the charm, wit and wisdom with which he initially portrayed Ralphie last season, to make this season’s take even more endearing. Whether playing Ralphie as a young boy, or breaking the fourth wall speaking directly to the audience as the adult Ralphie, who serves as the story’s narrator, Whittaker approaches the role with a familiarity that encourages the audience to recall their own similar childhood holiday memories.
Also returning for a second season is Curtis Reed, who plays Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy. Reed’s Randy is played with wild abandon. Some of the show’s funniest moments come courtesy of Reed’s all-out, hilarious, no-hold-barred scenes. Recreating one of my personal favorite scenes from the film, Reed, at the encouragement of Megan Murphy Chambers as the boys’ mother, acts like a “little piggy’ at the dinner table. Another hilarious Randy scene happens when nature begins to call while standing in line to meet Santa Claus. I’ve a feeling if Whittaker ever tires of playing Ralphie, Reed might step into the role.
Speaking of Megan Murphy Chambers, she’s also back for her second turn as Mother, as well as the duel role of Helen Weathers, one of Ralphie and Randy’s schoolgirl friends–It should be noted that most of the cast pulls double-duty in secondary roles throughout the play, adding to the hilarity of the situation. One of my longtime ‘theatre crushes’, there’s nothing Chambers can’t do. As Helen, Chambers is the epitome of a silly young girl. As Mother, she’s found a splendid balance of exasperation and affection. Of course those traits aren’t limited to her character’s sons, she also has plenty of reasons to exhibit them towards her character’s husband, The Old Man. Of her many highlights in the play, Chambers’ utter disdain for The Old Man’s ‘award’ of the now iconic leg lamp is simply hilarious. Another undoubtedly relatable scene for anyone whose parents didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
In a bit of life mimics art, this year The Old Man is played by Nashville Rep newcomer, Jack E. Chambers. It’s no coincidence that he shares his last name with his on-stage co-star..he and Megan Murphy Chambers just so happen to be married on-stage, too. That bit of trivia might attribute to the on-set chemistry between the two, perfectly demonstrated in the flirtatious scene in which Mother and The Old Man discuss shopping for the family’s Christmas turkey. Not sure why, but the double entendre in that scene reminded of winks and nods most kids watching TV’s “The Brady Bunch” in the early 70s totally missed.
When not being flirtatious with the Missus, Chambers is seen in his secondary role as Miss Shields, the local school teacher. That’s right, he’s in drag. Now, we’re not talking RuPaul’s Drag Race…is she or isn’t’ she glam drag…we’re talking Uncle Miltie–playing it strictly for laughs drag, and play it for laughs he does. Chambers first appears as Miss Shields wearing glasses, a bad wig, no makeup and with enough body padding to upholster an entire three piece living room sofa set. As if that weren’t enough, when “she” sat down at her schoolroom desk, “she” physically lifted her ample over-stuffed bosom and rests them on the desk. I literally laughed out loud, much to the chagrin on my grand-nephews who were attending opening weekend with me.
On the subject of drag, no one, and I mean no one is a funnier man in a dress than Antonio P. Nappo as Esther Jane Alberry, a surprisingly tall elementary school girl who has a not-so-secret crush on Ralphie. On the night I attended, Nappo had a little trouble with his wig, which he handled like the pro he is, but nonetheless, the quick hiccup garnered a huge laugh from the audience. As amusing as he is as Esther Jane, Nappo is just as convincing as Scut Farkas, the bully of the piece. Nappo, like so many of his co-stars, has such precise comedic timing that in only his second year with the production, I now can’t imagine Nashville Rep ever doing it without him.
Rounding out the cast are Brett Cantrell and Mickey Rosenbaum as Schwartz and Flick, Ralphie’s best pals and frequent encouragers of his many schemes and misadventures in his quest for the ultimate Christmas gift. Two of the best sidekicks since “Leave it to Beaver”‘s Eddie Haskel and Lumpy Rutherford, Cantrell and Rosenbaum’s Schwartz and Flick make the most of their limited time on stage. After all, these two are in what is arguably the most famous scene in the entire story…the ‘sinister triple dog dare’ when Schwartz goads Flick into sticking his tongue to the flagpole. After seeing Cantrell and Rosenbaum as the quintessential bad influences, one has to wonder if they draw from their own experiences to play these roles. They’re the friends everyone wishes they’d had and everyone’s parents pray their children never meet.
Of course the actors and the action is only part of what has made “A Christmas Story” such an endearing part of the modern holiday ritual. There’s also the look and feel of the whole experience, from Ralphie’s daydreams, cleverly brought to life in this stage version by Copeland’s wonderfully imaginative direction, to the gorgeous set by Nashville Rep’s brilliant Gary C. Hoff. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Trish Clark’s costumes. From Mother’s period-perfect housedress, apron and coat to the boys’ corduroy pants and flannel shirts…and of course Ralphie’s least-favorite, but most iconic Christmas present, the pink bunny pajamas!
Nashville Rep’s “A Christmas Story” continues its run at TPAC’s Johnson Theatre (505 Deaderick Street, Nashville, TN 37219) with performances Wednesdays-Sundays now through December 21. Tickets range in price from $45-$55 depending on date and time of performance. Nashville Rep frequently offers discounts on select show dates. One such discount has just been announced for the Wednesday, December 7 6:30 p.m. performance, which is now a PAY WHAT YOU CAN performance. Be sure to follow Nashville Rep on Facebook to stay informed on upcoming ticket specials. Click Here to purchase tickets or to check show dates and times. Click Here to follow Nashville Rep on Facebook. Click Here to follow them on Instagram, and Here to check out their Twitter account.
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